A further response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: several weeks ago, Professor Nigel Thrift, Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, UK, contributed an entry where he posed: ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)’. Peter N. Stearns, Provost of George Mason University, offered the first response to Nigel’s challenge in a series we will be posting through to the end of 2010.

This  ‘response’ is from Gregor McLennan, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Bristol. As Director of the IAS, Gregor has been busy promoting  a series of debates around the changing nature of the university in contemporary societies. His contribution to this series is therefore particularly welcome. Gregor’s work lies in the area of sociological theories and social philosophies, and has written widely on Marxism and pluralism in particular. His book, Sociological Cultural Studies: Reflexivity and Positivity in the Human Sciences, tackled some key questions of the day around (inter) disciplinarity, explanation, critical realism, complexity theory and Eurocentrism.

Susan Robertson & Kris Olds

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I want to raise a couple of issues about Nigel Thrift’s questions, to do with the way he constructs universities as a collective agency, a coherent ‘we’ that bears a ‘global’ identity. Nigel urges this ‘we’ fully to bring its actions into alignment with its ‘beliefs’, and to improve upon the shoddy performance of ‘other actors’ in tackling the ‘grand challenges’ of the day. And in that regard, the collectivity should see itself henceforth as positioned on a ‘war footing’, deploying its ‘engines of reason’ to force the principles of ‘scientific cooperation’ into service of the ‘survival of the species’.

There are several things that might be contested in this scenario of ‘agentification’, by which I mean the portrayal of universities as though they constituted a singular moral centre or personality, strategically intervening as such.

One is to do with its assumed site, the ‘global’ apparently designating something definite, and something quite obviously good. As Nigel knows, substantial objections can be raised against such easy affirmation of the nature and ‘imperativity’ of the global per se.  Yet universities everywhere now are falling over in the rush to assure themselves that meeting the ‘challenge of the global’ is something wholly other than the imperativity of the market, something that instead touches upon our deepest ethical and intellectual mission. It behoves us, I think, to be a tad sceptical about such ‘globalloney’ (in Bruno Latour’s phrase), and perhaps even to risk the accusation of parochialism by emphasising the continuing importance of the national contexts that not only universities, but many millions with an interest in the future of universities, still mainly orientate themselves around. National contexts – arguably at least – retain a certain logistical, cultural and psychological coherence that globality might forever lack; and the prospect of a world of relatively small-scale, highly educated democracies looks better geared to effective species-survival than the sort of flaccid but pushy cosmopolitanism that is currently doing the rounds.

Second, it is not self-evident that the kind of cooperation that characterizes scientific practice and development has any direct application to, or analogue within, the political processes through which any humanity-wide survival strategy will necessarily have to be coordinated. Nigel asks universities as a whole to interact in the way that individual investigators do, but this expectation is surely inappropriate. Academics are driven to work together because of their motivation to produce facts, measures, truths, and theories, whereas universities, as such, have no such intrinsic motivation, and nor do governments.

So asking universities to tackle the survival of the species is rather like asking families, or football clubs to do this. It’s not that people within these civic associations shouldn’t be mightily concerned about such imperatives, and contribute their expertise in a politically active way. It’s just that this is not these institutions’ defining concern. Indeed, in some ways the specific concern of universities – to develop plural communities of knowledge and understanding through discovery, controversial systematization, and rigorous reflection – is likely to generate some resistance to any politicized summary of the ‘threats and opportunities’ that ‘we’ all face. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a defence of the apolitical: as individuals and members of a range of collectives, we should get active around the priorities that Nigel Thrift designates. But it might be OK that universities are not best suited to organize in that targeted way. As Peter Stearns emphasises, universities’ hallmark medium is education, which is necessarily open-ended, changing and reflective. Of course, just as we need universities to free us from the blockages of our societal formations, interests and mind-sets, so in turn we need politics to reign in our deliberations and give positive shape to our values. But though they complement each other in this way, the functions of education and politics remain very different.

The third problematic aspect of Nigel’s line of thought comes out most clearly in Indira V. Samarasekera’s paper in Nature, in which it is suggested that universities have two prevailing thought-styles and labour processes: ‘solution-driven’ and ‘blue skies’. Both modes, she accepts, have to be part of core business. But whilst the latter, ‘until recently’, has been considered the ‘mainstay’, and must ‘remain so’, a much closer alignment between the two modes is held to be necessary if ‘we’ are to be more effective in ‘solving the world’s problems’. Accordingly, it is quite a good thing that the ‘fairly traditionalist’ structure of ‘curiosity-driven projects’ is giving way to a ‘fast and effective’ modality, enabling us to ‘keep pace’ with the big challenges, for which we need to ‘copy the organizations that work best’. To that end, Samarasekera maintains, we need to develop ‘collaboratories’ involving universities, government and industry, to bridge the gap between ‘universities and the private sector’, and to construct funding regimes that stimulate ‘interdisciplinary, inter-professional, and inter-sectoral approaches’.

It strikes me that the founding contrast here between ‘blue skies’ thinking (with just a hint of the smear of ‘uselessness’) and various other research practices (themselves over-schematized as ‘solution-driven’) is considerably exaggerated. But another, perhaps more insidious, bifurcation comes into play, according to which the agentic ‘we’ of the university turns out to have two bodies, as in, ‘We, the academic leaders and universities, should embrace this new relationship…’ In this depiction, the purely academic side of the collective, and the blue skies folks in particular, are ushered into the background and cast as worryingly slow off the mark, not quite up to the demands of fast and smart global Higher-ed with its solution-seeking culture. Responsibility for meeting the latter therefore falls perforce to the academic leaders, now stepping decisively into the foreground as the distinctive group that represents the essence and future of the university. So, given that the merits and deficits of, let’s say, inter-disciplinarity are never going to be definitively resolved if left to the bottom-up logic of seminar-room agonism, university leaders will have to push it through from the top, along with all the other excellent and necessary ‘inters’ of the new knowledge-society regime – inter-sectoralism, inter-professionalism, dynamic and agile Engagement with dynamic private and civic Collaborators, and so on. Now, whilst Nigel’s notion of the ‘forcing’ of knowledge seems potentially more subtle and interesting than this increasingly hectoring management ideology, a somewhat ‘traditionalist’ note still needs to be struck by way of caution, because to see universities as agentic interventionists at all is to risk missing the central point and purpose, even today, of their existence.

Gregor McLennan

‘Generation crunch’ (or, what is happening to graduate jobs and the ‘graduate premium’ in the UK)

Early this week, the Centre for Enterprise (CFE) in the UK released their report Generation Crunch: the demand for recent graduates on SME.

The report is essentially concerned with the employment prospects for university graduates in Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and makes for particularly interesting reading.

Focusing on SME’s as sources of employment is important because, as they note;

While there is a relatively clear picture of this demand from the public sector and larger businesses, much less is known about the demand from SMEs. This matters, as there are an estimated 4.8 million SMEs in the UK, employing 23.1 million people and together they account for 99% of all enterprises.

Several findings stand out in their report. The first is that the CFE’s survey of over 500 SMEs in the East Midlands region of the UK highlighted confusion over the graduate ‘brand’ with 29% incorrectly identifying A-Levels (that is an upper or senior school exit qualification in the UK) as a graduate qualification.

Even when furnished with the correct definition of a graduate level qualification, it is clear that the recruitment of Generation Crunch graduates is a minority pursuit — just 11% of SMEs had taken on a recent graduate in the past 12 months and only 12% indicated they would do so in the next 12 months.

Almost a third (32%) of those firms that were not hiring graduates reported that nothing would make them recruit a graduate in the next year and the reason for most was a lack of demand, rather than an inadequate or unsuitable supply of graduates.

In an interview this week with the Guardian, James Kewin, joint managing director of the Centre for Enterprise, is reported as saying:

There is not a clear or shared understanding of the term graduate among small and medium size businesses. There is a clear need to rationalise the plethora of qualification frameworks, levels and agencies that currently litter the education and skills landscape and to develop an easily understandable summary of what is and what isn’t a graduate-level qualification.

He said efforts to boost the proportion of graduates in jobs could have only a marginal impact. “Most small and medium size businesses that do not recruit reported that lack of demand, rather than inadequate and unsuitable supply, was their primary reason for not recruiting,” he said. “This suggests that the trend for increasing the employability skills of graduates will, in isolation, have only a marginal impact. The same is true of initiatives aimed at promoting, subsidising or improving access to graduate recruits. While they may lead to a short-term reduction in graduate unemployment, they do not address the fundamental barrier – lack of business need – that prevents most small and medium size businesses from recruiting.”

This is also particularly damaging news for the UK government at the current time, given that it is busy trying to encourage more students to enrol in university studies.

In the Foreword to the recent new ‘Framework for Higher Education’, Higher Ambitions, released in late 2009, the Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills – Peter Mandelson – promised that:

A university education can be an entry ticket to the best paid employment and a preparation for a globalised world of work (p. 24).

What makes the CFE’s research potential dynamite is the implications it has for the government’s review currently being led by Lord Browne, former Head of BP, on lifting the cap on university tuition fees in English, Northern Ireland, and Welsh universities with English students in them.

Image courtesy of Bianca Soucek

Lifting the cap on tuition fees is sold to students as compensated for by a  ‘graduate premium’. In other words, students who invest in university undergraduate studies (and with increased student fees they are investing more of their own funds in their studies) will continue to earn ‘considerably more’ over a lifetime than those who don’t.

Last year GlobalHigherEd reported on the OECD’s statistical evidence about declining graduate premiums, despite the OECD’s own strong claims about the positive economic returns from investing in university studies. We pointed out that the evidence is clear; the value of the premium holds only as long as its value as a positional good is secured. The greater the number of students entering university, the more the value of the premium reduces.

This, of course, is what is behind Lord Browne’s observations in early December, 2009 and reported by BBC news. Lord Browne  calculated the graduate premium as being  1/4  (£100,000) of the one claimed by government (£400,000); this inflated figure was also the one used by government when it justified its increase in the cap on university tuition fees (from £1,225 to £3,225) which was implemented in 2007. Had the value of a university premium declined, the press asked? No, said the government! The question, of course, is who are we talking about? Clearly everyone is not in the same boat, and some might not be in a boat at all.

In 2007 a study on the economics of a degree by PricewaterhouseCoopers for Universities UK produced a different figure for the ‘graduate premium’  –   of an average of £160,000. This study pointed out, however, that the ‘average’ concealed important differences between students – with medical and dentistry students earning a ‘graduate premium’ of around £340,000, humanities students around £51, 500, and arts students  £35,000. Now it is not difficult to do the maths on this one. Investing in an arts degree does not make for good economic sense.  Indeed PricewaterhouseCooper’s report that males with an arts undergraduate degree will earn 4% less than males who hold an A-level qualification only.

When faced with…

  • limited job prospects if the CFE’s data on SME’s and graduate employment is anything to go by
  • likely cuts in UK public sector spending as the government manages its worst financial crisis since the 1930s
  • knowledge that subject of study, gender, social class, income, non-traditional entry qualifications, and so on, can mediate the value of a ‘graduate premium’ (positively and negatively) and therefore should be placed into the mix of any hard-edged economic consideration
  • a poor return on investing in a university degree if studies are in areas like arts and humanities
  • a likely increase in the cost of university tuition after the election to inject funding into a limping university sector

…some students and their families could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that a university education at all costs is simply not worth it as an economic investment in their future. This conclusion is likely to apply to families in other OECD countries, and not just the UK.

Governments might be better served if they came clean on the economic argument. Instead it should emphasize the value of university studies for social, cultural and political reasons (indeed the OECD’s recent Education at a Glance 2009, p. 176 cites figures which show that ‘political interest’ is enhanced by a 20 % point increase in probability when an individual has a tertiary education).

By recovering, valuing, and making prominent, these dimensions and outcomes of intellectual inquiry, we could then put such knowledge and capability to work on important global problems, like poverty, climate change, sustainability, and building more equitable and socially cohesive communities.

Susan Robertson

Brazil’s new Latin American and global integration universities launched

As 2009 drew to a close, Brazil’s Senate granted official authorization for the establishment of a new, very different kind of university in Brazil – the Federal University for Latin America Integration, otherwise known as UNILA.

Unanimously passed on December 16th 2009, the Bill now enables UNILA to formally announce itself as a university, instead of a fledging project under the banner of the Institute for Advanced Studies, with oversight by the University of Parana, in the Brazilian state of Parana.

UNILA is one of three regional integration universities launched by Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2006 to advance Brazil’s interests within the region and globally. The other two university projects are UNILAB – the Afro-Brazilian University of Integration, and UNIAM – the University of Amazonian Integration.

These Brazilian initiatives were the latest addition to a rapidly changing higher education landscape around the globe, and one that is set to continue in 2010 (as implied in a recent NY Times report about the implications of the collapse of Dubai’s overheated economy for branch campuses such as Michigan State University and Rochester Institute of Technology).

Dubai’s spectacular meltdown in December was matched by a stunning $61m launch party for Saudi Arabia’s ‘House of Wisdom’ – the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST which Kimberly Coulter covered for GlobalHigherEd.

As Kris Olds wrote in his introduction to Coulter’s entry:

KAUST is a unique experiment in how to organize an institution to facilitate innovation in scientific knowledge production, a secure and efficient compound (hence Saudi Aramco’s involvement), a defacto sovereign wealth fund, a demonstration effect for new approaches to higher education in Saudi Arabia, and many other things (depending on standpoint).

So what do these initiatives have in common? Money aside (KAUST has an endowment of around US$11bn), but like KAUST, Brazil’s three new universities reflect a shared ambition: to use international higher education networks to advance cultural, political and economic projects.

However while KAUST is aimed at developing a world class national university in Saudi Arabia via the recruitment of global talent (academics and students), state of the art buildings and cutting edge development projects, UNILA, UNILAB and UNIAM are aimed at creating a ‘supranational’, ‘global’ and ‘regional’  university respectively, drawing upon staff and students from within the wider region, or from across south-south networks (UNILAB) – though each,  as I will show below, have distinctive visions and territorial reaches with UNILAB the most global.

In August of 2009, I had the privilege of attending the official launch of UNILA.  Close to the fabulous Iguacu Falls,  in Foz, Parana, UNILA is being developed on a 43 hectare site granted by Itaipu Binacional, the bi-national energy company running the huge hydro-electric dam providing energy to Paraguay and the southern cone of Brazil.

The objectives of UNILA are to pursue inter-regional trans-disciplinary research and teaching in areas of joint interest of the MERCOSUL member countries (Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay) focusing, for example, upon use of natural resources, trans-border biodiversity, social sciences and linguistic research, international relations as well as relevant disciplines for strategic development.

Unlike KAUST, however, whose model is US-oriented (in becoming the MIT of the East, the ‘Stanford by the Seashore’), UNILA’s mission and approach to knowledge is shaped by a distinctive Latin American commitment. Each course has a Patron and a Founder.

The first Patrons have been chosen for being Latin American names who have left relevant academic-scientific contributions associated to a field of knowledge , while course founders have been appointed for the high academic prestige in their respective fields of knowledge as well as renowned international competence in their specialities.

10 Professorial Chairs have been appointed to UNILA. Each Chair has a mandate to develop courses in ways that are inspired by, and advance, the intellectual legacy of the Patron. For instance, in the area of science, technology and innovation,  founding Chair, Hebe Vessuri, will draw inspiration from the patron Amilcar Herrerra (1920-1995) – an Argentinean geologist who valued inter-disciplinary knowledge and who have argued that the solution to problems lay not with science as progress, but in the interface with policy and politics.

These patrons are clearly not the organic intellectuals of the ruling classes. Many of these patrons, such as the Chilean writer Francisco Bilbao (1823-65), and Paraguay’s Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005), have spent years in exile.

The target student population for UNILA is 10,000 students enrolled in undergraduate and post-graduate programmes leading to MA and PhD degrees. Entrants will be required to sit a university entry examination that will be offered in two versions: one with a Portuguese language requirement for Brazilian citizens and a Spanish Language for the foreign candidates of eligible member countries. Lectures will be offered in both Portuguese and Spanish, as it is expected that half of the teaching staff will be from the regional member countries.

By way of contrast with UNILA, UNILAB is the most global in ambition. This unilateral Portuguese-speaking Afro-Brazilian University of Integration will have  campuses in various  Portuguese speaking countries (Brazil, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, Sâo Tomé and Príncipe, and East Timor). Expected to open for enrolment in the beginning of   2010, UNILAB is hailed as a political-pedagogic innovation project (see here for information on UNILAB developments).

The principal aim of UNILAB is to encourage and strengthen co-operation, partnerships, and cultural, educational and scientific exchanges between Brazil an member states of   the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP) listed above. UNILAB will also focus on collaboration with the African countries of the CPLP,  aiming to contribute to these nations’ socio-economic development, including reducing ‘brain drain’ problems currently experienced by African countries.

UNILAB is intended to become an integrated multi-campus institution with campuses in all the   African member countries of the CPLP. Each of these campuses will also be integrated within the regions where they are located. Its main campus will be established in the city of Redenção in Brazil’s North-Eastern state of Ceará, approximately 60 kilometres from the city of Fortaleza. Redenção has been selected to host the main campus because it was the first municipality that had abolished slavery in Brazil, and because the region currently does not yet host a university. The main campus is also expected to function as an instrument for the strategic social-economic development of the North-East of Brazil.

In a report carried by the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education on these initiatives, Brazil’s Minister of Education, Fernando Haddad, commented:

We will not offer traditional programmes, but instead we will construct a common identity between the countries, that makes it possible to contribute to the social-economic development of each of the countries involved.

The third, more regional, initiative, Universidade Federal da Integração Amazônica, or UNIAM, will be established as a public multi-campus university, with a main campus in the Brazilian city of Santarém, and three satellite campuses in the cities Itaituba, Monte Alegre and Oriximiná, all located in Brazil’s state of Pará.

The main aim of UNIAM will be to encourage social-economic integration of the Amazon region, which includes not only parts of Brazil, but also areas of eight surrounding countries.

UNIAM’s  main campus will be established in the Brazilian city of Santarém, and three satellite campuses in the cities Itaituba, Monte Alegre and Oriximiná, all located in Brazil’s state of Pará. The aim of the new institution will be to encourage social-economic integration of the Amazon region, which includes not only parts of Brazil, but also areas of eight surrounding countries.

While it is unclear at the moment when the new university will open for enrolment, by 2013 UNIAM is expected to offer 41 programmes at Bachelor’s, Master’s and doctoral levels.  The Brazilian government will reportedly cover the US$107 million budget that will be needed to pay for the establishment and personnel costs of the new university until 2012.

Described by the Brazilian Ministry of Education as particular ‘political-pedagogic innovation projects’, these three new universities are intended to enhance national, regional and global integration, and demonstrate to the world that it may be possible to unite different countries through education.

These are fascinating initiatives likely to liven up the global higher education landscape in 2010. They reflect not only emerging regionalisms, but potential shifts in the sites and stakes of global and regional knowledge production and power.

Susan Robertson

Moody’s ‘Special Comment’ report on the global recession and public/private universities

They say a year is a long time in politics. This last year has been a particularly long one, not only in political and policy circles, but for whole nations and their institutions. The sub-prime mortgage collapse quickly turned into a fiscal meltdown and is now a full-blown global recession.  ‘Hunkering down’, weathering the effects, and practicing ‘recession-style prudence and risk management’ is now the new game in town.

So how are universities doing in this highly uncertain, fiscally-brutal environment? Clearly there are many kinds of stories which can and are being told — from departments closing to new ventures being advanced.

One story being put forward is by Moody’s — one of the two big global rating agencies whose pronouncements on the creditworthiness of nations and institutions makes them particularly powerful and worth noting (see also our earlier background report on rating agencies and higher education).

In June, Moody’s released a Special Comment report on higher education called Global Recession and Universities: Funding Strains to Keep Up with Rising Demand which makes for particularly interesting reading. The lead author of the report is Roger Goodman, Vice President-Senior Credit Officer, Moody’s Investors Service, New York.  Our thanks to University World News for bringing the report to our attention in their 5 July story ‘US: Universities fair well in recession, says Moody’s‘), and to Moody’s for permission to publish the figure below.

Essentially their argument is that (particularly public):

…universities are proving to be appealing investments for government stimulus efforts due to the sector’s stabilising, countercyclical nature in the short term as well as its potential to stimulate long term economic growth.

…Most universities demonstrate countercyclical ability to increase student enrollments during recessions, receive relatively strong support from sponsoring governments, and offer long term potential for increasing revenue diversity.

On page 3 of their report, Moody’s offer a useful graphic on the enrollment impact of recessions (see Fig 1 below).

MoodysFig1

In other words, as the economy nose-dives, individuals are more likely to consider investing in more education as a means of waiting out the recession, and positioning themselves for the labour market when it revives. For Moody’s this all means a possible ‘tail-wind’ for universities as student demand increases — particularly those who have an access oriented agenda.

Moody’s Report outlines 5 key ideas:

  1. While universities will experience some stress, they will be more sheltered than other sectors.
  2. Public university ‘credit quality’ will be steadier than that of private universities
  3. Private universities can achieve a high rating if they are able to show evidence of sustained demand, financial strength and liquidity is clear
  4. Universities are likely to seek more alternative sources of funding to offset the pressure on government balance sheets and limitations on public funding growth
  5. Despite efforts at diversifying, the public sector will continue to play a central role

There are several issues worth noting here. The first is that individuals have been encouraged to invest in a graduate education, very often at considerable personal expense (loans and so on) with the promise of future earnings that outpace non-graduate earnings. If wages are depressed across the public and the private sectors because governments and firms are having to manage the consequences of bailing out the banks, then a graduate education might not be as appealing as it once was.

Second, aside from the stark black and white categorizing of ‘public’ and ‘private’ in this report (for instance, is the University of Sydney, or the University of Wisconsin-Madison, public or private given that both receive around 14-18% of their core budget from government funding?),  Moody’s also offers us something of a paradox.

To weather the storm, public universities are going to have to become more ‘private’ in order to augment meagre government budgets.  However, the more private a once public university is, the greater the risk. Is this not a classic case of catch-22?

Susan Robertson

CHERPA-network based in Europe wins tender to develop alternative global ranking of universities

rankings 4

Finally the decision on who has won the European Commission’s million euro tender – to develop and test a  global ranking of universities – has been announced.

The successful bid – the CHERPA network (or the Consortium for Higher Education and Research Performance Assessment), is charged with developing a ranking system to overcome what is regarded by the European Commission as the limitations of the Shanghai Jiao Tong and the QS-Times Higher Education schemes. The  final product is to be launched in 2011.

CHERPA is comprised of a consortium of leading institutions in the field within Europe; all have been developing and offering rather different approaches to ranking over the past few years (see our earlier stories here, here and  here for some of the potential contenders):

Will this new European Commission driven initiative set the proverbial European cat amongst the Transatlantic alliance pigeons?  rankings 1

As we have noted in earlier commentary on university rankings, the different approaches tip the rankings playing field in the direction of different interests. Much to the chagrin of the continental Europeans, the high status US universities do well on the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Ranking, whilst Britain’s QS-Times Higher Education tends to see UK universities feature more prominently.

CHERPA will develop a design that follows the so called ‘Berlin Principles on the ranking of higher education institutions‘. These principles stress the need to take into account the linguistic, cultural and historical contexts of the educational systems into account [this fact is something of an irony for those watchers following UK higher education developments last week following a Cabinet reshuffle – where reference to ‘universities’ in the departmental name was dropped.  The two year old Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has now been abandoned in favor of a mega-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills! (read more here)].

According to one of the Consortium members website –  CHE:

The basic approach underlying the project is to compare only institutions which are similar and comparable in terms of their missions and structures. Therefore the project is closely linked to the idea of a European classification (“mapping”) of higher education institutions developed by CHEPS. The feasibility study will include focused rankings on particular aspects of higher education at the institutional level (e.g., internationalization and regional engagement) on the one hand, and two field-based rankings for business and engineering programmes on the other hand.

The field-based rankings will each focus on a particular type of institution and will develop and test a set of indicators appropriate to these institutions. The rankings will be multi-dimensional and will – like the CHE ranking – use a grouping approach rather than simplistic league tables. In contrast to existing global rankings, the design will compare not only the research performance of institutions but will include teaching & learning as well as other aspects of university performance.

The different rankings will be targeted at different stakeholders: They will support decision-making in universities and especially better informed study decisions by students. Rankings that create transparency for prospective students should promote access to higher education.

The University World News, in their report out today on the announcement, notes:

Testing will take place next year and must include a representative sample of at least 150 institutions with different missions in and outside Europe. At least six institutions should be drawn from the six large EU member states, one to three from the other 21, plus 25 institutions in North America, 25 in Asia and three in Australia.

There are multiple logics and politics at play here. On the one hand, a European ranking system may well give the European Commission more HE  governance capacity across Europe, strengthening its steering over national systems in areas like ‘internationalization’ and ‘regional engagement’ – two key areas that have been identified for work to be undertaken by CHERPA.

On the other hand, this new European ranking  system — when realized — might also appeal to countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia who currently do not feature in any significant way in the two dominant systems. Like the Bologna Process, the CHERPA ranking system might well find itself generating ‘echoes’ around the globe.

Or, will regions around the world prefer to develop and promote their own niche ranking systems, elements of which were evident in the QS.com Asia ranking that was recently launched.  Whatever the outcome, as we have observed before, there is a thickening industry with profits to be had on this aspect of the emerging global higher education landscape.

Susan Robertson

Elephants in the room, and all that: more ‘reactions’ to the Bologna Process Leuven Communiqué

Editor’s Note: As those of you following GlobalHigherEd well know, the big news story of April on the higher education calender was the release of the Leuven Communiqué following the the 6th Bologna  Ministerial Conference held in Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve,  28-29th April, 2009.

46 Bologna countries gathered together to review progress toward realizing the objectives of the Bologna Process by 2010, and to establish the priorities for the European Higher Education Area.  Prior to the meeting there was quite literally an avalanche of stocktaking reports, surveys, analyzes and other kinds of commentary, all fascinating reading (see this blog entry for a listing of materials).

With the Communiqué released, and the ambition to take the Bologna Process into the next decade under the banner – ‘The Bologna Process 2010’, GlobalHigherEd has invited leading European actors and commentators to ‘react’ to the Communiqué.

leuven 1

Last week  we posted some initial ‘reactions:  Pavel Zgaga’s Bologna: beyond 2010 and over the Ocean – but where to? and Peter Jones’ Was there a student voice in Leuven? In this entry, we add more. We invited Per Nyborg, Roger Dale, Pauline Ravinet and Anne Corbett to comment briefly on one aspect they felt warranted highlighting.

Per Nyborg was Head, Bologna Process Secretariat (2003-2005). Roger Dale, Professor of Sociology of Education, University of Bristol, UK, has written extensively on the governance of the European Higher Education Area and the role of Bologna Process in that. He recently published a co-edited volume on Globalisation and Europeanisation in Education (2009, Symposium Books). Pauline Ravinet is a post doctoral researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. She completed her doctoral research at Sciences Po, Paris, and has published extensively on the Bologna Process.  Anne Corbett is Visiting Fellow, European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Dr. Corbett is author of Universities and the Europe of Knowledge Ideas, Institutions and Policy Entrepreneurship in European Union Higher Education 1955-2005 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Susan Robertson

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“Bologna Toward 2010” – Per Nyborg

In 2005, halfway toward 2010, Ministers declared that they wished to establish a European Higher Education Area (EHEA) based on the principles of quality and transparency and our rich heritage and cultural diversity. They committed themselves to the principle of public responsibility for higher education. They saw the social dimension as a constituent part of the EHEA.

The three cycles were established, each level for preparing students for the labor market, for further competence building and for active citizenship. The overarching framework for qualifications, the agreed set of European standards and guidelines for quality assurance, and the recognition of degrees and periods of study, were seen as key characteristics of the structure of the EHEA.

What has been added four years later? Ministers have called upon European higher education institutions to further internationalize their activities and to engage in global collaboration for sustainable development. Competition on a global scale will be complemented by enhanced policy dialogue and cooperation based on partnership with other regions of the world. Global cooperation and global competition may have taken priority over solidarity between the 46 partner countries. But Bologna partners outside the European Economic Area region must not be left behind!  leuven 2

A clear and concise description of the EHEA and the obligations of the participating countries is what we should expect from the 2010 ministerial conference – at least if it shall be seen as the founding conference for the EHEA, not only a Bologna anniversary on the way to 2020.

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“Elephants in the Room, and All That”   Roger Dale

Reading the Leuven Communiqué, we can’t help but be impressed by the continuing emphasis on the public nature of and public responsibility for higher education that has characterized BFUG’s statements over the years. Indeed, the word ‘public’ appears 9 times.

However, at the same time we can’t help wondering about some other  words and connotations that don’t appear.

The nature of the ‘fast evolving society’ to which the EHEA is to respond implied by the Communiqué, seems rather different from that implied in some of these elephants in the room.

Quite apart from ‘private’ (which as Marek Kwiek has constantly reminded us is indispensable to the understanding of HE in many of the newer member states), we may cite the following:

  • First and foremost, ‘Lisbon’, with its dominant focus on Productivity and Growth;
  • Second, ‘European Commission’, the home and driver of Lisbon, and the indispensable paymaster and facilitator of the Bologna Process.
  • Third, the ‘European Research Area’; surely a report on European Universities/ERA would paint a rather different picture of the Universities over the next decade from that presented here.

It is difficult to see how complete and accurate a picture of Bologna, as it goes into its second phase, this ‘more of the same’ Communiqué provides. Perhaps the most pregnant phrase in the document is “Liaise with experts in other fields, such as research, immigration, social security and employment”,  a very mixed and interesting quartet, whose different demands may pose real problems of harmonization.

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“The Bologna Process  – a New Institution? ” Pauline Ravinet

I have been particularly interested in my own research on early phases and subsequent institutionalization of the Bologna Process. In this work I have tried to recompose and analyze what happened between 1998–the year when the process began with unexpected Sorbonne declaration–and now, where the Bologna process has become the central governance arena for higher education in Europe. This did not happen in one day and was rather a progressive invention of a unique European structure for the coordination of national higher education policies.

Reading the Leuven Communiqué with the institutionalization question in mind is extremely interesting. Presenting the achievements of the 2000s and defining the priorities for the decade to come, this text states more explicitly than any Bologna document before, that the process has gone much further than a ten-year provisory arrangement for the attainment of common objectives.

The Bologna process is becoming an institution. It is first an institution in its most formal meaning: the Bologna process designates an original organizational structure, functioning according to specific rules, and equipped with innovating coordination tools which will not perish but on the contrary enter a new life cycle in 2010. The Bologna Policy Forum, which met on the 29th April, will be the formal group that engages with the globalization of Bologna. This represents a further new expression of the institutionalization of Bologna.  leuven bologna policy forum

But it is also an institution in a more sociological sense. The Bologna arena has acquired value and legitimacy beyond the performance of specific tasks, it embeds and diffuses a policy vision which frames the representations and strategies of higher education actors of all over Europe, and catches the interest of students, academia, and HE experts world wide.

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“Fit For Purpose? ”  Anne Corbett

The European Higher Education Area is the New Decade, has European Ministers responsible for higher education, declaring (para 24) that

[t]he present organisational structure of the Bologna Process is endorsed as being fit for purpose’.

You may think this to be a boring detail. However as a political scientist, I’d argue that this is the most theoretically and politically interesting phrase in the Communiqué. In policy making terms, the Bologna decade has been about framing issues, negotiating agendas, developing policies and testing out modes of cooperation which can be accepted throughout a Europe re-united for the first time for 50 years.

These are the sorts of activities typically carried out by experts and officials who are somewhat shielded from the political process. For a time they enjoy a policy monopoly (Baumgartner and Jones 1993 – see reference below).

In terms of policy effectiveness this is all to the good. The people who devote time and thought to these issues have to build up relations of trust and respect. They don’t need politicians to harry them over half-thought out ideas.

The Bologna Follow-up Group, which devises and delivers on a work programme which corresponds to the wishes of ministers, have produced an unprecedented degree of voluntary cooperation on instruments as well as aims (European Standards and Guidelines in Quality Assurance, Qualifications Frameworks, and Stocktaking or national benchmarking), thanks to working groups which recruit quite widely, seminars etc. Almost every minister at the Leuven conference started his/her 90 second speech with tributes to the BFUG.

But there comes a time in every successful policy process when political buy-in is needed. The EHEA-to-be does not have that. Institutionally Bologna is run by ministers and their administrations, technocrats and lobbyists. Finance (never ever mentioned in any communiqué) is provided by the EU Commission, EU presidencies and the host countries of ministerial conferences (up to now EU). Records of the Bologna Process remain the property of the ministries providing the secretariat in a particular policy cycle. “It works, don’t disturb it,” is the universal message of those insiders who genuinely want advance.

Students in the streets (as opposed, as Peter Jones’ entry reminds us, to those in the Brussels-based European Student Union) are a sign that a comfortably informal process has its limits once an implementation stage is reached. It is such a well known political phenomenon that it is astonishing that sophisticated figures in the BFUG are not preparing to open the door to the idea that an EHEA needs arenas at national and European level where ministers are answerable to the broad spectrum of political opinion. Parliamentarians could be in the front line here. Will either of the European assembles or any of the 46 national parliaments take up the challenge?

Baumgartner, F. and B. Jones (1993). Agendas and instability in American politics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

QS.com Asian University Rankings: niches within niches…within…

QS Asia 3Today, for the first time, the QS Intelligence Unit published their list of the top 100 Asian universities in their QS.com Asian University Rankings.

There is little doubt that the top performing universities have already added this latest branding to their websites, or that Hong Kong SAR will have proudly announced it has three universities in the top 5 while Japan has 2. QS Asia 2

QS.com Asian University Rankings is a spin-out from the QS World University Rankings published since 2005.  Last year, when the 2008 QS World University Rankings was launched, GlobalHigherEd posted an entry asking:  “Was this a niche industry in formation?”  This was in reference to strict copyright rules invoked – that ‘the list’ of decreasing ‘worldclassness’ could not be displayed, retransmitted, published or broadcast – as well as acknowledgment that rankings and associated activities can enable the building of firms such as QS Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd.

Seems like there are ‘niches within niches within….niches’ emerging in this game of deepening and extending the status economy in global higher education.  According to the QS Intelligence website:

Interest in rankings amongst Asian institutions is amongst the strongest in the world – leading to Asia being the first of a number of regional exercises QS plans to initiate.

The narrower the geographic focus of a ranking, the richer the available data can potentially be – the US News & World Report draws on 18 indicators, the Joong Ang Ilbo ranking in Korea on over 30. It is both appropriate and crucial then that the range of indicators used at a regional level differs from that used globally.

The objectives of each exercise are slightly different – whilst a global ranking seeks to identify truly world class universities, contributing to the global progress of science, society and scholarship, a regional ranking should adapt to the realities of the region in question.

Sure, the ‘regional niche’ allows QS.com to package and sell new products to Asian and other universities, as well as information to prospective students about who is regarded as ‘the best’.

However, the QS.com Asian University Rankings does more work than just that.  The ranking process and product places ‘Asian universities’ into direct competition with each other, it reinforces a very particular definition of ‘Asia’ and therefore Asian regionalism, and it services an imagined emerging Asian regional education space.

All this, whilst appearing to level the playing field by invoking regional sentiments.

Susan Robertson

Anne Corbett on the “Six to be reckoned with at the Bologna conference” in Leuven this week

Catch Anne Corbett’s interesting reflections published in the Guardian on this week’s big European higher education event in Leuven, Belgium: the 6th Bologna Ministerial Conference, 28-29th April, 2009.  Let’s see what events unfold once the Conference Communique is put into action.

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Anne Corbett is Visiting Fellow, European Institute, London School of Economics, and former journalist. Anne  has recently contributed to GlobalHigherEd reflecting upon Clifford Adelman’s report The Bologna Process with U.S. Eyes: Relearning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence.

Susan Robertson

‘Tuning USA’: reforming higher education in the US, Europe style

Many of us are likely to be familiar with the film An American in Paris (1951), at least by name. Somehow the romantic encounters of an ex-GI turned struggling American painter, with an heiress  in one of Europe’s most famous cities — Paris, seems like the way things should be. lumina-13

So when the US-based Lumina Foundation announced it was launching Europe’s ‘Tuning Approach within the Bologna Process’ as an educational experiment in three American States (Utah, Indiana and Minnesota) to  “…assure rigor and relevance for college degrees at various levels” (see Inside Higher Ed, April 8th, 2009),  familiar  refrains and trains of thought are suddenly shot into reverse gear. A European in America? Tuning USA, Europe style?

For Bologna watchers, Tuning is no new initiative. According to its website profile, Tuning started in 2000 as a project:

…to link the political objectives of the Bologna Process and at a later stage the Lisbon Strategy to the higher education sector. Over time Tuning has developed into a Process: an approach to (re-)design, develop, implement, evaluate and enhance quality in first, second and third cycle degree programmes.

Given that the Bologna Process entails the convergence of 46 higher education systems across Europe and beyond (those countries who are also signatories to the Process but how operate outside its borders), the question of how comparability can be assured of curricula in terms of structures, programmes and actual teaching, was clearly a pressing issue.

Funded under the European Commission’s Erasmus Thematic Network scheme, Tuning Educational Structures in Europe emerged as a project that might address this challenge.  tuning-31

However, rather like the Bologna Process, Tuning has had a remarkable career. Its roll-out across Europe, and take up in countries as far afield as Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has been nothing short of astonishing.

Currently 18 Latin American and Caribbean countries (181 LAC universities) are involved in Tuning Latin America across twelve subject groups (Architecture, Business,  Civil Engineering, Education, Geology, History, Law, Mathematics, Medicine, Nursing and Physics).  The Bologna  and Tuning Processes, it would seem, are  considered a key tool for generating change across Latin America.

Similar processes are under way in Central Asia, the Mediterranean region and Africa. And while the Bologna promoters tend to emphasise the cultural and cooperation orientation of Tuning and Bologna, both are self-evidently strategies to reposition European higher education geostrategically. It is a market making  strategy as well as increasingly a model for how to restructure higher education systems to produce greater resource efficiencies, and some might add, greater equity.

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Similarly, the Tuning Process is regarded as a means for realizing one of the ‘big goals’ that  Lumina Foundation President–Jamie Merisotis–had set for the Foundation soon after taking over the helm; to increase the proportion of the US population with degrees to 60% by 2025 so as to ensure the global competitiveness of the US.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 1st, 2009), Merisotis “gained the ear of the White House”  during the transition days of the Obama administration in 2008 when he urged Obama “to make human capital a cornerstone of US economic policy”.

Merisotis was also one of the experts consulted by the US Department of Education when it sought to determine the goals for education, and the measures of progress toward those goals.

By February 2009, President Obama had announced to Congress he wanted America to attain the world’s highest proportion of graduates by 2020.  So while the ‘big goal’ had now been set, the question was how?

One of the Lumina Foundation’s response was to initiate Tuning USA.  According to the Chronicle, Lumina has been willing to draw on ideas that are generated by the education policy community in the US, and internationally.

Clifford Adelman is one of those. A  senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, Adelman was contracted by the Lumina Foundation to produce a very extensive report on Europe’s higher education restructuring. The report (The Bologna Process for U.S. Eyes: Re-learning Higher Education in the Age of Convergence) was released early this April, and was profiled by Anne Corbett in GlobalHigherEd. In the report Adelman sets out to redress what he regards as the omissions from the Spellings Commission review of higher education.  As Adelman (2009: viii)  notes:

The core features of the Bologna Process have sufficient momentum to become the dominant global higher education model within the next two decades. Former Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education paid no attention whatsoever to Bologna, and neither did the U.S. higher education community in its underwhelming response to that Commission’s report. Such purblind stances are unforgivable in a world without borders.

But since the first version of this monograph, a shorter essay entitled The Bologna Club: What U.S. Higher Education Can Learn from a Decade of European Reconstruction (Institute for Higher Education Policy, May 2008), U.S. higher education has started listening seriously to the core messages of the remarkable and difficult undertaking in which our European colleagues have engaged. Dozens of conferences have included panels, presentations, and intense discussions of Bologna approaches to accountability, access, quality assurance, credits and transfer, and, most notably, learning outcomes in the context of the disciplines. In that latter regard, in fact, three state higher education systems—Indiana, Minnesota, and Utah—have established study groups to examine the Bologna “Tuning” process to determine the forms and extent of its potential in U.S. contexts. Scarcely a year ago, such an effort would have been unthinkable.

Working with students, faculty members and education officials from Indiana, Minnesota and Utah, Lumina has now initiated Tuning USA as a year-long project:

The aim is to create a shared understanding among higher education’s stakeholders of the subject-specific knowledge and transferable skills that students in six fields must demonstrate upon completion of a degree program. Each state has elected to draft learning outcomes and map the relations between these outcomes and graduates’ employment options for at least two of the following disciplines: biology, chemistry, education, history, physics and graphic design (see report in InsideIndianabusiness).

The world has changed. The borders between the US and European higher education are now somewhat leaky, for strategic purposes, to be sure.

A European in America is now somehow thinkable!

Susan Robertson

The US – India ‘knowledge’ relationship: the sleeping giant stirs!

gore Editor’s Note: This entry has been kindly prepared by Tim Gore, now Director of The Centre for Indian Business, University of Greenwich, London, UK.  Prior to this, Tim was Director of Education at the British Council in India, where he was responsible for growing the knowledge partnership between India and the UK. Tim also led the establishment of the UK-India Education and Research Initiative (UKIERI) that is profiled in an earlier blog entry.

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How will President Obama’s ambitious plans for a new diplomacy translate into practical international relations and how will this impact on the education sector? An early example of this may prove to be relations with India and some clues may be in the newly released Asia Society Task Force report: Delivering on the Promise: Advancing US Relations with India.  goreasiasociety2goreasiasociety1

The high level rhetoric for the US-India relationship may not have changed that much after all President Bush declared ‘the world needs India’ on his 2006 visit to the Indian School of Business (ISB) – Hyderabad –  a school touted by the new report as an example of what can be done with good US-India cooperation. The School works in partnership with Wharton and Kellogg and prompted a Bush accolade ‘You’ve got a great thing going’!

However, the tone of the report is a substantial departure from the Bush years. Democratic colors are now firmly fixed to the mast and references to ‘reciprocity’ and ‘understanding India’ abound, while the ‘world needs India’ has changed to ‘the USA needs India as an ally in its foreign policy issues’.

The education agenda is a little buried in this report. It has been classified under the second track ‘Joint Public-Private Partnerships for Complex Global Challenges’. Is this code meaning that there will be little Government funding available (seed-corn funding is mentioned briefly)? After all, educational relations between the two countries have flourished over the years, despite a relative absence of visible policy and public sector involvement. There are over 80,000 Indians studying in higher education in the US every year and the US dominates the ‘market’ for doctoral studies. Also, many commentators (see, for example,  Anna-Lee Saxenian’s book The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy) have pointed out the seminal role of talented Indian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere and research links with the US are strong and growing.

There are also quite a number of US tertiary collaborations with India (although surprisingly bearing in mind the respective sizes of their tertiary sectors, not more than the number of UK collaborations). However, the use of ISB as a beacon of attainment highlights the key issue with US-India educational relations and the nuances of policy that the US will need to get right.

goreisb ISB is an exceptional institution, undoubtedly in the top tier of such institutions globally, in terms of how hard they work their students if nothing else! However ISB, with its powerful private sector Governing Board and influential international links (US presidents don’t drop into every management college with a foreign badge on the gate), is not accredited in India by the relevant regulatory body the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

Similarly, the campus of the US Western International University run by the influential Modi family has no official status in India. If pressed, officials will say that it is ‘not legal’.

Australia, New Zealand and UK have a multilateral forum with India on quality assurance, regulation of cross border education and other issues of mutual interest, The US approach thus far has been to lobby for liberalisation of the sector. Alienating the Human Resources Ministry may not matter in trade relations, but it will matter in education and knowledge partnerships.

The report shows little understanding of the education sector. It claims that direct investment in education is not allowed in India. This is not really the case as a recent MoU to establish a campus of Georgia Institute of Technology in Andhra Pradesh (near the ISB) demonstrates. Regulation of foreign provision in India is unclear with the relevant legislation frozen in parliament but accreditation can be achieved. The UK’s Huddersfield University has both invested in, and achieved, official recognition of its joint venture in ‘Hospitality Management’ with the Taj Hotel Group in India.

Similarly, the report claims that the higher education sector is overwhelmingly public which is again not the case. Over 50% of higher education provision in India is private and the vast majority of audiences the US would like to address at secondary level will attend private schools which dominate the urban areas. This brings me to a second point.

The ISB example, while interesting, also misses the point raised, as the main way the US can build an educational relationship with India is claimed to be partnership in meeting the training requirements for India’s large population. ISB and similar Tier 1 institutions will never address this demand with their tiny elite intakes. More relevant are the 1800 engineering colleges with Tier 2 aspirations that are currently achieving less than 30% employability according to the IT industry body Nasscom. Here the community colleges and Tier 2 US institutions could play a bigger role (briefly touched upon in the report). And here, also, the private sector becomes very relevant with the enormous number of Tier 2 private institutions springing up all over India.

Finally, the potential of the partnership is less than fully explored here. The US already has a substantial knowledge partnership with India which transcends the main objective in the report; of helping India to produce its next generation workforce. The complex research and innovation links with US through entrepreneurs and highly qualified graduate technicians and scientists are of immense value to both countries but largely ignored in this report. The overall impression is of a hastily prepared report to encourage the new administration to focus on India.

Many of us have wondered what would happen if the sleeping giant awakes and the US take a more pro-active and coherent approach to its knowledge and education partnership with India.This report may be the alarm clock going off..!!

Tim Gore

CRELL: critiquing global university rankings and their methodologies

This guest entry has been kindly prepared for us by Beatrice d’Hombres and Michaela Saisana of the EU-funded Centre for Research on Lifelong Learning (CRELL) and Joint Research Centre. This entry is part of a series on the processes and politics of global university rankings (see herehere, here and here).

beatriceSince 2006, Beatrice d’Hombres has been working in the Unit of Econometrics and Statistics of the Joint Research Centre of  the European Commission. She is part of the Centre for Research on Lifelong Learning. Beatrice is an economist who completed a PhD at the University of Auvergne (France). She has a particular expertise in education economics and applied econometrics.

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Michaela Saisana works for the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission at the Unit of Econometrics and Applied Statistics. She has a PhD in Chemical Engineering and in 2004 she won the European Commission – JRC Young Scientist Prize in Statistics and Econometrics for her contribution on the robustness assessment of composite indicators and her work on sensitivity analysis.

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The expansion of the access to higher education, the growing mobility of students, the need for economic rationale behind the allocation of public funds, together with the demand for higher accountability and transparency, have all contributed to raise the need for comparing university quality across countries.

The recognition of this fact has also been greatly stirred  by the publication, since 2003, of the ‘Shanghai Jiao Tong University Academic Ranking of World Universities’ (henceforth SJTU), which measures university research performance across the world. The SJTU ranking tends to reinforce the evidence that the US is well ahead of Europe in terms of cutting-edge university research.

Its rival is the ranking computed annually, since 2004, by the Times Higher Education Supplement (henceforth THES). Both these rankings are now receiving worldwide attention and constitute an occasion for national governments to comment on the relative performances of their national universities.

In France, for example, the publication of the SJTU is always associated with a surge of articles in newspapers which either bemoan  the poor performance of French universities or denounce the inadequacy of the SJTU ranking to properly assess the attractiveness of the fragmented French higher education institutions landscape (see Les Echos, 7 August 2008).

Whether the intention of the rankers or not, university rankings have followed a destiny of their own and are used by national policy makers to stimulate debates about national university systems and ultimately can lead to specific education policies orientations.

At the same time, however, these rankings are subject to a plethora of criticism. They outline that the chosen indicators are mainly based on research performance with no attempt to take into account the others missions of universities (in particular teaching), and are biased towards large, English-speaking and hard-science institutions. Whilst the limitations of the indicators underlying the THES or the SJTU rankings have been extensively discussed in the relevant literature, there has been no attempt so far to examine in depth the volatility of the university ranks to the methodological assumptions made in compiling the rankings.

crell3The purpose of the JRC/Centre for Research on Lifelong Learning (CRELL) report is to fill in this gap by quantifying how much university rankings depend on the methodology and to reveal whether the Shanghai ranking serves the purposes it is used for, and if its immediate European alternative, the British THES, can do better.

To that end, we carry out a thorough uncertainty and sensitivity analysis of the 2007 SJTU and THES rankings under a plurality of scenarios in which we activate simultaneously different sources of uncertainty. The sources cover a wide spectrum of methodological assumptions (set of selected indicators, weighting scheme, and aggregation method).

This implies that we deviate from the classic approach – also taken in the two university ranking systems – to build a composite indicator by a simple weighted summation of indicators. Subsequently, a frequency matrix of the university ranks is calculated across the different simulations. Such a multi-modeling approach and the presentation of the frequency matrix, rather than the single ranks, allows one to deal with the criticism, often made to league tables and rankings systems ,that ranks are presented as if they were calculated under conditions of certainty while this is rarely the case.  crell

The main findings of the report are the following. Both rankings are only robust in the identification of the top 15 performers on either side of the Atlantic, but unreliable on the exact ordering of all other institutes. And, even when combining all twelve indicators in a single framework, the space of the inference is too wide for about 50 universities of the 88 universities we studied and thus no meaningful rank can be estimated for those universities. Finally, the JRC report suggests that THES and SJTU rankings should be improved along two main directions:

  • first, the compilation of university rankings should always be accompanied by a robustness analysis based on a multi-modeling approach. We believe that this could constitute an additional recommendation to be added to the already 16 existing Berlin Principles;
  • second, it is necessary to revisit the set of indicators, so as to enrich it with other dimensions that are crucial to assessing university performance and which are currently missing.

Beatrice d’Hombres  and Michaela Saisana

Ranking – in a different (CHE) way?

uwe_brandenburg_2006-005nl GlobalHigherEd has been profiling a series of entries on university rankings as an emerging industry and technology of governance. This entry has been kindly prepared for us by Uwe Brandenburg. Since 2006 Uwe has been project manager at the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) and CHE Consult, a think tank and consultancy focusing on higher education reform.  Uwe has an MA in Islamic Studies, Politics and Spanish from the University of Münster (Germany),  and an MscEcon in Politics from the University of Wales at Swansea.

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Talking about rankings usually means talking about league tables. Values are calculated based on weighed indicators which are then turned into a figure, added and formed into an overall value, often with the index of 100 for the best institution counting down. Moreover, in many cases entire universities are compared and the scope of indicators is somewhat limited. We at the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHE) are highly sceptical about this approach. For more than 10 years we have been running our own ranking system which is so different to the point that  some experts  have argued that it might not be a ranking at all which is actually not true. Just because the Toyota Prius is using a very different technology to produce energy does not exclude it from the species of automobiles. What are then the differences?

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Firstly, we do not believe in the ranking of entire HEIs. This is mainly due to the fact that such a ranking necessarily blurs the differences within an institution. For us, the target group has to be the starting point of any ranking exercise. Thus, one can fairly argue that it does not help a student looking for a physics department to learn that university A is average when in fact the physics department is outstanding, the sociology appalling and the rest is mediocre. It is the old problem of the man with his head in the fire and the feet in the freezer. A doctor would diagnose that the man is in a serious condition while a statistician might claim that over all he is doing fine.

So instead we always rank on the subject level. And given the results of the first ExcellenceRanking which focused on natural sciences and mathematics in European universities with a clear target group of prospective Master and PhD students, we think that this proves the point;  only 4 institutions excelled in all four subjects; another four in three; while most excelled in only one subject. And this was in a quite closely related field.

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Secondly, we do not create values by weighing indicators and then calculating an overall value. Why is that? The main reason is that any weight is necessarily arbitrary, or in other words political. The person weighing decides which weight to give. By doing so, you pre-decide the outcome of any ranking. You make it even worse when you then add the different values together and create one overall value because this blurs differences between individual indicators.

Say a discipline is publishing a lot but nobody reads it. If you give publications a weight of 2 and citations a weight of one, it will look like the department is very strong. If you do it the other way, it will look pretty weak. If you add the values you make it even worse because you blur the difference between both performances. And those two indicators are even rather closely related. If you summarize results from research indicators with reputation indicators, you make things entirely irrelevant.

Instead, we let the indicator results stand for their own and let the user decide what is important for his or her personal decision-making process. e.g., in the classical ranking we allow the users to create “my ranking” so they can choose the indicators they want to look at and in which order.

Thirdly, we strongly object to the idea of league tables. If the values which create the table are technically arbitrary (because of the weighing and the accumulation), the league table positions create the even worse illusion of distinctive and decisive differences between places. They then bring alive the impression of an existing difference in quality (no time or space here to argue the tricky issue of what quality might be) which is measurable to the percentage point. In other words, that there is a qualitative and objectively recognizable measurable difference between place number 12 and 15. Which is normally not the case.

Moreover, small mathematical differences can create huge differences in league table positions. Take the THES QS: even in the subject cluster SocSci you find a mere difference of 4.3 points on a 100 point scale between league rank 33 and 43. In the overall university rankings, it is a meager 6.7 points difference between rank 21 and 41 going down to a slim 15.3 points difference between rank 100 and 200. That is to say, the league table positions of HEIs might differ by much less than a single point or less than 1% (of an arbitrarily set figure). Thus, it tells us much less than the league position suggests.

Our approach, therefore, is to create groups (top, middle, bottom) which are referring to the performance of each HEI relative to the other HEIs.

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This means our rankings are not as easily read as the others. However,  we strongly believe in the cleverness of the users. Moreover, we try to communicate at every possible level that every ranking (and therefore also ours) is based on indicators which are chosen by the ranking institution. Consequently, the results of the respective ranking can tell you something about how an HEI performs in the framework of what the ranker thinks interesting, necessary, relevant, etc. Rankings therefore NEVER tell you who is the best but maybe (depending on the methodology) who is performing best (or in our cases better than average) in aspects considered relevant by the ranker.

A small, but highly relevant aspect might be added here. Rankings (in the HE system as well as in other areas of life) might suggest that a result in an indicator proves that an institution is performing well in the area measured by the indicator. Well it does not. All an indicator does is hint at the fact that given the data is robust and relevant, the results give some idea of how close the gap is between the performance of the institution and the best possible result (if such a benchmark exists). The important word is “hint” because “indicare” – from which the word “indicator” derives – means exactly this: a hint, not a proof. And in the case of many quantitative indicators, the “best” or “better” is again a political decision if the indicator stands alone (e.g. are more international students better? Are more exchange agreements better?).

This is why we argue that rankings have a useful function in terms of creating transparency if they are properly used, i.e. if the users are aware of the limitations, the purpose, the target groups and the agenda of the ranking organization and if the ranking is understood as one instrument among various others fit to make whatever decision related to an HEI (study, cooperation, funding, etc.).

Finally, modesty is maybe what a ranker should have in abundance. Running the excellence ranking in three different phases (initial in 2007, second phase with new subjects right now, repetition of natural sciences just starting) I am aware of certainly one thing. However strongly we aim at being sound and coherent, and however intensely we re-evaluate our efforts, there is always the chance of missing something; of not picking an excellent institution. For the world of ranking, Einstein’s conclusion holds a lot of truth:

Not everything that can be counted, counts and not everything that counts can be counted.

For further aspects see:
http://www.che-ranking.de/cms/?getObject=47&getLang=de
http://www.che-ranking.de/cms/?getObject=44&getLang=de
Federkeil, Gero, Rankings and Quality Assurance in Higher Education, in: Higher Education in Europe, 33, (2008), S. 209-218
Federkeil, Gero, Ranking Higher Education Institutions – A European Perspective., in: Evaluation in Higher Education, 2, (2008), S. 35 – 52
Other researchers specialising in this (and often referring to our method) are e.g. Alex Usher, Marijk van der Wende or Simon Marginson.

Uwe Brandenburg